Pros: Rich, full sound at all levels; Excellent noise reduction; X-Fi system restores some fidelity to MP3s; iPhone and iPod Touch adapter included
Cons: Sound bleeds out from the headphones; Bulky
Verdict: New headphones from Creative bring the company's sound-enhancing X-Fi technology to an already excellent set of noise-canceling cans.
Priced at a serious $299 and designed to compete directly with Bose's QuietComfort 3 headphones, Creative's Aurvana X-Fi Headphones are just as comfortable and do just as good at job blocking out unwanted noise. But Creative has a secret weapon that no other headphone maker offers: the ability to make compressed MP3s sound better.
The X-Fi 'phones are considerably larger than Bose's QC3s. The padded headband and cups are extremely comfortable to wear over a long period of time, and we preferred them to Bose's design. The cans are bulky, however, so they lose the portability edge to the QC3s. The cups do fold flat, and the entire unit can be zipped into the enclosed case. One nice touch for Apple fans: An adapter for the iPhone and iPod touch is included.
From the most basic perspective, the X-Fi headphones sound rich. You can still listen to music with noise reduction turned off, which we appreciate. With the reduction applied, loud external sounds receded to the far background. Barring in-ear systems, Bose's two QuietComfort solutions are the only other headphones we've tested that were as effective at reducing unwanted frequencies.
That's only half the package, however. X-Fi aims to re-create elements of the sonic spectrum lost when a song is compressed to MP3. It works quite well, adding some bass and sparkle to most tracks with little to no unwanted noise. Not that you can make a 98-Kbps MP3 sound like an original CD, but those who regularly listen to original sources at home and compressed music on the road will appreciate the difference.
The X-Fi system has two components: the Crystalizer, which adds clean low and high ends, and the CMSS-3D technology, which intends to add space and dimension. Each can be toggled on and off by a small button on the right headphone. The effect can be subtle but is often quite pronounced; almost every MP3 we listened to sounded better and more natural. DVDs got less benefit from the crystalizer than it did from 3D function, which added welcome air to dialogue and effects tracks.
One design aspect of these cans won't please everyone. Rather than placing microphones (to detect cancel-worthy external sound) on the shell of each earphone, Creative placed them within each cup casing, hidden behind a grille. The upshot of the design is a more natural soundstage than those found in most noise-canceling headphones; it's a vague replica of that created by vented diaphragm designs by manufacturers like Grado. The downside, of course, is that sound also escapes through the vents, meaning that neighbors on the airplane or in the cafe may not like these headphones as much as you will.
Even with that limitation, these debut X-Fi headphones are an exceptional piece of technology. The price is high, but if pure portability and silent operation aren't your key parameters, the Aurvana X-Fi headphones are arguably superior to Bose's QC3s.